During the past few weeks, I've been on a quest for the spiciest restaurant dishes in Tarrant County, an ongoing search that has led friends to ask me whether they should deliver me bottles of anatacids.
Perhaps because I have some sense of moderation — the basic criteria being that the dish should be sinus-clearing, but not palate-blowing — such aid wasn't necessary (we won't talk about the morning-after effects, though). More searching is planned; this is just a starter kit for fire-eaters in the Fort Worth area, because there are no finished stories, only deadlines.
Oni Reaper, Oni Ramen: The Oni Reaper is a bowl of ramen that gets its name from the Carolina Reaper, currently the hottest commercially available pepper. But at full strength, the Reaper also features spices made from scorpion, habanero, ghost and other peppers capable of setting your hair on fire. The first time I had it, I got the spice on the side; when you do that, you get the Carolina Reaper kick but not the other peppers. And I got only about a quarter of the spice in before my eyes started watering.
When I had it full-strength, though, I was surprised at how far I got with it; chef/owner Jesus Garcia says that's because the other ingredients (pork belly that's really the highlight of the dish, a soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, Parmesan-buttered corn kernels, bean sprouts and green onions) help balance out the heat. After the noodles and other ingredients were gone, though, I wasn't about to drink the broth, where all that spice settles and gets even hotter.
Spice rating: 5 on a scale of 5.
Nashville hot fried chicken, Little Red Wasp: Yes,the $19 price tag is a little scary, but you get a big leg and a thigh that both bring the heat, as well as some cooling sides and a load of Best Maid Pickles, from Blaine Staniford, one of Fort Worth's top chefs. No need to ask for "extra spicy" here — the "hot" part of this "Nashville hot" is no joke.
Spice rating: 4 1/2 out of 5. Dinner only.
Project X, Charley's Old Fashioned Hamburgers: Fort Worth has no shortage of spicy burgers: The chipotle-topped Diablo at Fred's Texas Cafe; the habanero/Fresno pepper-spiked Hot Bastard at Rodeo Goat; the Five Pepper Burger at Pouring Glory; the habanero-serrano (and more) El Diablo at Hopdoddy Burger Bar. But the Project X — a cheeseburger featuring a Tabasco-soaked patty topped with jalapeños — won my heart (and my heartburn) way back when I first tried it in the early '90s, not long after Charley's 1992 opening on Granbury Road, where, aside from a few additional outdoor tables, the burger joint still feels as old-fashioned as its name implies.
Spice rating: 4 1/2 out of 5.
Guisado de res, Los Asaderos: Previous visits to Los Asaderos (formerly El Asadero; did they add another block of cheese?) did not lead me to believe I'd find much there for my quest, but things have changed. As the Star-Telegram's Bud Kennedy wrote recently, the fiery salsa is hot again — some of the most heat-charged salsa I've had in a while. This bodes well for the guisado de res, beef tips served in seasoned gravy at a spice level that you choose. The extra spicy did not disappoint, with the kind of heat kick that you feel in your forehead.
Spice rating: 4 out of 5.
Gipsy Danger and Che Cazzo pizzas, Cane Rosso Fort Worth: Yes, pizzas can deliver the heat. The Gipsy Danger, available in DFW only at the Fort Worth location, is topped with soppressata marmalade, roasted jalapeños, mushrooms and housemade mozzarella. The Che Cazzo (the menu simply says "trust your pizzaiolo ... always spicy") is available at all locations. A friend and I nearly devoured both whole pies, although a couple of slices did make it back to the office; both were among the best Cane Rosso pizzas I've had, but we gave the edge to the Gipsy Danger for flavor and to the Che Cazzo for heat.
Spice rating (for both): 4 out of 5.
Kuaitieo Rua (Thai boat noodles), Thai Charm Cuisine: Where to go among Tarrant County's many Thai restaurants (there's even one named Spice) when you're on a spicy-food hunt? Well, when a friend tells you he can barely get through a level one at Thai Charm Cuisine, then it's intriguing. Perhaps overcautiously, I ordered a level 2 of this dish, described as " 'Thai boat noodles' with dark blood broth enriched with loads of spices, stewed tendon, poached marinated beef, meatballs, fried garlic, bean sprouts, green onion, cilantro, and seasonal Asian vegetables." All great for the cold day I had this, and although I could've gone up to a 3, the level 2 did make me sweat.
Spice rating: 4 out of 5 (and that's at a level 2).
Spicy beef soup ($12), Hoya Korean Kitchen: This evolving downtown restaurant started as an order-at-the-counter place but is now a full-service, order-at-the-table spot. It has plenty of items designated as spicy on the menu, including this one, which I happened to have on a cold, rainy day. The broth had a pleasant warming effect on my body, and the spice a more euphoric effect on my head. But it didn't stay with me during the four-block walk back to the office.
Spice rating: 3 1/2 out of 5.
Texas "Bowl of Red," Tolbert's Restaurant & Chili Parlor: The chili legacy here is strong — according to the website, Frank X. Tolbert founded the Terlingua Championship Chili Cook-Off in 1976 before co-founding Tolbert's with his son a year later — but it's more about flavor than heat. Fire-eaters can get a "five-alarm" sauce on the side. I got it, and it brought things close to my preferred heat level. But I had to use all of it.
Spice rating: 3 out of 5 (with the five-alarm sauce).
Four wings with "suicide" sauce and a slice of New Yorker pizza, Buffalo Bros. Pizza, Wings and Subs: "Suicide" sauce sounds a little scary, but it's a habanero-based sauce, and I I can handle that. Sure enough, it was respectably spicy but it wasn't really challenging for someone with my heat tolerance (we have heard tell, however, that some people find Buffalo Bros. "mild" sauce too spicy). For Texans, the name "New Yorker" on a pizza might not conjure up visions of jalapeños, but they're there, along with meatballs, red pepper, green pepper, and onions. Nothing to give a fire-eater pause, although the jalapeños did have a cumulative effect on top of the wing sauce.
Spice rating: 3 out of 5.
Aji de gallina ($16) and pescado a lo macho ($24), Peru Gourmet: A friend and I tried two dishes at this north Arlington restaurant, and both delivered: Aji de gallina (shredded chicken in a spicy yellow pepper cream sauce with garlic, yellow chili and pecans) was hearty with some good heat, while pescado a lo macho, fried fish in a spicy sauce, had even more of a punch. It wasn't the most scorching stuff during this quest, but the menu has a lot of interesting choices on it, and we'll be back.
Sprice rating: Aji de gallina spice: 3 out of 5; pescado a lo macho, 3 1/2 out of 5.
2425 N.E. Green Oaks Blvd., Arlington, 682-706-3860, perugourmetllc.com